Ever since he was a teenager in Winchester, Illinois, Watt’s goal has been simple: build something that will last. In his town of 1,600, Watt spent two formative summers working for a local homebuilder, learning the fundamentals of construction. But, like his attorney father, he eventually went into law. He has never lost sight of his initial goal, though; he has simply gone from building structures to building relationships, and it’s the one skill he believes accounts for his and his firm’s success.
While attending George Washington University Law School, Watt began working in December 1969 as a law clerk for Lewis Mitchell Bixler & Moore, a boutique law firm specializing in government-contract and construction law. After passing the bar exam and becoming a full-fledged associate in 1971, though, Watt decided to branch off on his own, helping to launch Watt Tieder Killian & Toole (the first iteration of WTHF) in 1978. He wanted to step away from convention.
“The philosophy our firm is built on is that merit and ability, not seniority, are key to a successful business,” Watt says. His firm furthered this ethos by developing systems where attorneys were rewarded not only for creating good client relations but also for the results they produced. As the managing partner for the firm’s first 30 years, Watt concentrated on attracting top talent, enhancing employees’ skills, and spreading the impact of each professional’s contributions. “True leadership is making everyone invested in the team to make something greater than its parts,” Watt says. His firm has since become one of the nation’s best construction-law firms; it, too, has been cited by Chambers USA, specifically as the number one construction-law firm in 2009 and 2011.
For Watt, it was the firm’s willingness to take on difficult cases that allowed it to build an enviable reputation and create case law that is still relied upon today to decide contentious matters between contractors and surety companies—the firm’s two primary customers. One of those difficult cases also became one of WTHF’s highest-profile cases when the firm took on Clark County, Nevada, over a disagreement regarding the county’s new Regional Justice Center project (which had been contractually awarded based on
a bid of $125 million)—and won.
Clark County wanted to settle with WTHF and its client before arbitration, so Watt reluctantly met with the county’s lawyers. They offered to settle for $2 million, and Watt balked at the number and immediately walked out of the meeting. After 10 weeks of arbitration and a too-soon public declaration of victory in local papers by the county, WTHF’s client won a net recovery of $52.7 million, thoroughly beating the county’s counterclaim. The case was not only an enormous victory; it cemented WTHF’s reputation. And, in the past year, things came full circle when the people of Clark County actually hired WTHF to handle a case for them.
Now that the firm has fully ingrained itself into the world of construction law, Watt and his colleagues are continuing to evolve with the industry’s changing legal landscape. Recently, they have noticed an uptick in public-private partnerships over higher-risk, fiscally challenged projects such as toll roads. While these partnerships are mutually beneficial when built intelligently, they carry greater risks for all parties involved, and there are usually more parties to contend with, so WTHF’s legal team must take extra care and look at the cases through a variety of lenses.
Watt also notes hat, particularly in the field of office construction, there has been a rise in the use of modular building techniques. The 32-story Skanska USA building in New York City, for instance, is set to become the largest modular building in the city. The projects have a number of benefits, including the low costs of factory labor versus unionized labor, but modular systems also create numerous liability issues. The building strategy can call into question the interpretation and applicability of many typical contract clauses merely because innovation changes operating methodology and thus legal frameworks. So, careful planning, coordination, and execution are necessary to avoid costly remedial actions or delays. Plus, companies have to be cognizant of the different legal requirements in each state; for example, Tennessee is the only state that has adopted a modular-construction statute.
Finally, WTHF is seeing an increase in early dispute resolutions and dispute-resolution boards in order to avoid litigation. “I will almost always go to a mediation before I would go to court,” Watt says. Traditional litigation in construction cases involves getting a judge or jury to understand complex issues in an unfamiliar field, but dispute-resolution boards and mediations allow parties to agree in advance and resolve as many potential problems as possible on their own. Selecting the right mediator and having an experienced DRB panel are often the key factors that will help lead to an equitable resolution.
WTHF arose from Watt and his partners’ need to put a premium on results, not seniority, and in its aggressive search for and subsequent winning of challenging cases, the firm has achieved a leading reputation in the construction industry. Through it all, Watt has played his own part, too. As the father of the firm, he has helped foster its relationships, and it’s that work that has earned WTHF its big-name clients and high-profile victories in the first place.